Which composer is currently outraging the musical world by turning things completely upside down? I would be hard pressed to name one. Exactly one hundred years ago there was no doubt about who qualified for the accolade of Bürgerschreck in Germany. It was Paul Hindemith. Long before he discovered Bach and the advantages of tonality, he was shocking listeners with his Kammermusik no. 1. Like so many rebels, much of what he did was tongue-in-cheek, sheer provocation. In a note to this score he wrote: “It is recommended that the performers position themselves so they are not seen by the audience.”

Kent Nagano © Sergio Veranes Studio
Kent Nagano
© Sergio Veranes Studio

We might wonder today what all the fuss was about. True, the first movement with its pulsating mechanistic rhythms sounds almost like a test-plate for Mosolov’s Iron Foundry (written six years later). Yet in this performance by the Hamburg Philharmonic under Kent Nagano many of the sharp edges were bevelled away: he emphasised the lyrical qualities and piquancy of the writing rather than the anarchic spirit and outré timbres. Nothing was laid on with the trowel; the barmy was kept at bay. 

I’m not sure that the layout in the hall helped. In a short address before the concert Nagano explained how he and his players were interpreting the social distancing measures. This meant that he had one semi-circle of players in front of him and another – with viola, accordion and the wind soloists – behind him. Throughout the evening (and for the main work he had almost forty players dependent on his beat) he had to swivel round to cue part of the ensemble. One of the vagaries of this hall is that woodwind voices can often swamp individual strings. That frequently occurred in the Kammermusik. Even the fusillade of gunfire from the side-drum in the Finale seemed comparatively tame, though I was quite charmed by some of Hindemith’s effects in the slow movement. Here, an expressive clarinet solo is offset by delicate punctuation from a single glockenspiel bar, like the chiming of an ormolu clock on the mantelpiece.

Schoenberg spent some of his time arranging chamber reductions of the symphonic repertoire. His version of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is for just ten players, including harmonium and piano. These are ballads that drip with heartache. In this performance, one of the strengths of the soloist, Julian Prégardien (son of Christoph), was that his youthful-sounding and honeyed lyrical tenor made you believe in this particular journeyman blighted in love and still racked with romantic feeling. He maintained a fine legato line for the slow tread of the closing song, the voice absolutely secure in the top register for his impassioned “Vom allerliebsten Platz”, though the chest tones elsewhere were sometimes underpowered.

To end this curious trio of unrelated pieces, Nagano directed Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, saturated with the balmy spirit of the composer’s idol, Mozart. Or that is how it is frequently described. The light scoring (no trumpets, clarinets or timpani) intensifies the grace and charm, but if the opening Allegro is taken at too deliberate a pace, as was the case here, it is like watching a flock of gazelles grazing endlessly in the high grass. I missed the bubbling infectiousness with which this movement can end, though the two middle movements had a neat ebb and flow to the phrasing. The Finale was altogether a little too careful, the strings chattering politely amongst themselves rather than singing from the heart. Mozartian grace and charm are not the easiest of things to come by.

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